Today we’re pleased to have a guest post from incoming CAPS/ACSP Chair Joe Sparling on Employment Insurance for early career researchers…
Dr. Joseph S. Sparling is a postdoctoral scholar studying neurodegenerative disease in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary. He is the current president of his local postdoctoral association (PDAC), an outspoken advocate for postdoctoral policy reform, and the incoming (2016-2017) chair of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars / Association Canadienne des Stagiaires Postdoctoraux (CAPS/ACSP).
People who dedicate their life’s work to research do not expect fame and fortune, but neither do they expect to earn a PhD only to be unceremoniously evicted from academia and forced to take a random job to cover living expenses. And yet, the latter is a reasonably common outcome for many postdocs working in Canada today, and it happens far more often than you would imagine. This is largely due to the lack of basic protections provided to the vast majority of workers in Canada through Employment Insurance (EI).
The policies in place at most Canadian institutions appear to be based on the assumption that postdocs don’t need the protections provided by EI; that having a PhD somehow makes a person immune to unemployment and illness, uninterested in raising a family, and less likely to have critically ill relatives or children. As a result of these policies, postdoctoral researchers are left vulnerable to income loss due to unemployment and are routinely forced to take unpaid leave due to maternity or illness, or no leave whatsoever as the father of a newborn or recently adopted child, the family member of a terminally-ill relative, or the parent of a critically ill child. Worse still is that the actual number of postdocs finding themselves in these unenviable situations each year is entirely unknown, as no Canadian research institution, government body, or funding agency bothers to collect or report this type of unflattering data.
As a member of the executive board of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars / Association Canadienne des Stagiaires Postdoctoraux (CAPS/ACSP), I know these people exist because I’ve spoken to them, especially in the past few months, and particularly regarding the lack of maternity benefits for postdocs working in Canada. As a Canadian, I find the lack of access to EI (or equivalent protections) for postdocs unacceptable and I am ashamed of our system – especially when I hear stories of expectant mothers being forced to take unpaid maternity leave. Striving to attain EI benefits for all postdocs will be one of CAPS/ACSP’s primary advocacy targets in 2016-2017, and while this will not be an easy issue to solve, I have little doubt that it can be achieved if we work together. The first step towards solving this problem is gathering as much information as possible about its prevalence and impact, and so I ask that all postdocs who have faced difficulties related to the lack of EI coverage share their stories with me and the CAPS/ACSP executive. We’ll use that information as evidence of the need for policy reform, but you will remain anonymous unless you explicitly give us permission to share your story publicly.
Improvements in policy will take considerable time and effort, and in the meantime, the CAPS/ACSP executive board will continue to do everything we can to support postdocs seeking improved benefits and protections at the individual or institutional levels by providing information and resources. A prime example of this is a recent post, in which we drew attention to a little-known process by which any worker in Canada can seek access to EI by requesting an employment status ruling from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). While this option is available to any postdoc, it must be noted that the success of any ruling request depends on a number of factors, including the source of funding for the individual’s work and a variety of specific criteria used to determine whether an employer-employee relationship exists between the postdoc and their institution. Intriguingly, this approach is also available to postdocs who have already lost their position (regardless of why), even if the position ended in the previous calendar year, in which case the request must be submitted to the CRA by June 30th of the current year (i.e., next Thursday for positions that ended in 2015). For more details regarding this process, please read the full post, “CRA Employment Status Rulings: Important information for all postdocs working in Canada”, which can be found on the CAPS/ACSP Facebook page or accessed directly from our Google Drive, and be sure to follow the links provided in that article to get all the details from the CRA website if you are considering acting on any of the information provided.
CRA ruling requests are by no means an ideal solution to the problem of the lack of EI coverage for postdocs. They are however, an option that most postdocs are unaware of and an approach that may prove useful for some postdocs in need of access to EI benefits. In the coming months CAPS/ACSP will be unveiling additional advocacy initiatives aimed at lobbying the federal and provincial governments for major reforms in postdoctoral policy. I urge you to support these initiatives in any way that you can, as they represent our best chance to bring about meaningful and long-lasting improvements in postdoctoral working conditions in Canada.
PS: For those of you who do not know… CAPS/ACSP is a national organization representing the interests of all postdocs working in Canada as well as Canadian postdocs working abroad. The organization is run by an executive board comprised of elected volunteers who dedicate their time to: 1) help build and maintain a strong postdoctoral community across Canada, 2) work to empower postdocs by sharing information and resources, and 3) advocate for improvements in postdoctoral policy at the federal, provincial, and institutional levels.